How bad are sugary drinks for your health?

A new tax on sugary drinks is a useful reminder of why they’re bad news for our health, explains Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor.

Sugar in can of soft drink

There’s nothing like a cold drink on a hot day. But many of them come with as much as nine or 10 teaspoons of sugar in a bottle or can.

As a nation, we’re consuming too much sugar, and diets high in sugar are linked to obesity. As a result, a soft drinks industry levy, dubbed a ‘sugar tax’ or ‘fizzy drinks tax’, has become a key part of government strategy on childhood obesity. It came into force in April 2018.

Why is sugar bad for your health?

You probably know that sugary drinks are bad for your teeth – they feed bacteria in your mouth, which produce acid that starts to dissolve your teeth. And most sugary drinks (including juices) are acidic, which makes the situation even worse.

If you’re a healthy weight, you might think you don’t need to worry about sugar – that’s not true

But the sugar story doesn’t end there. A 2015 review of carbohydrates and health from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition showed that diets high in sugar tend to be high in calories, and the associated weight gain can have an impact on your heart.

More than half of us in the UK are now overweight or obese, which increases your risk of heart and circulatory diseases. It also increases your chances of developing high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes – risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases.

If you’re a healthy weight, you might think you don’t need to worry about sugar – that’s not true. If you have a lot of sugary foods and drinks in your diet, it might mean you’re not getting the right balance of food groups. The current version of the official Eatwell Guide says that sugary and fatty foods and drinks are not needed in your diet. If you eat them, you’re either getting too many calories overall, or not enough of the foods that are more nutritious.

Is the sugar in drinks worse than sugar from food?

Sugary drinks are the biggest source of sugar for children and young people, and in the top five for adults (along with confectionery, jams and spreads, biscuits and cakes). Sugary drinks don’t generally provide us with any nutrition – just calories.

Drinks with a high milk content won’t be taxed because of the nutrients the milk provides.

Given that most of us need to lose some weight, if the new levy encourages us to cut back on sugary drinks, or encourages manufacturers to cut the sugar in their products, then either way it’s likely to have a positive effect on our diets.

If you want to help your health and avoid the tax, look for drinks that have ‘no added sugar’ on the label, or have less than 5g of sugar per 100ml.

What about the sugar in juice and milk drinks?

Pure juices don’t contain added sugar so aren’t affected by the new tax, but they’re high in calories and contain free sugars. A daily 150ml glass of pure, unsweetened juice still counts as one of your 5-a-day, but it can’t count as more than one, so a piece of whole fruit is a better choice.

Drinks with a high milk content, such as milkshakes, won’t be taxed either, because of the nutrients the milk provides. As well as the naturally occurring sugars in milk, these drinks usually contain added sugar – a chocolate milkshake can contain 10 teaspoons of sugar, so plain milk is a healthier choice.

The sugary drinks tax

Bottles of soft drinkThe soft drinks levy now means that, for drinks with at least 5g of sugar per 100ml, companies will be charged 18p per litre. Drinks that contain 8g or more per 100ml will face a higher charge of 24p per litre.

The government says it is a ‘levy’ not a ‘tax’, because companies don’t have to pass it on to consumers and can change their drinks to remove added sugar.

France, Finland, Hungary, Mexico and several US cities already have similar policies.

Money raised by the levy will be invested in programmes to encourage physical activity and healthy eating in children. However, the £1bn per year originally expected has now been reduced to £385m, as many manufacturers have already reformulated their products and reduced the sugar content.

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